And They Shall Be My People
An American Rabbi and His Congregationby Paul Wilkes
“There are lots of books on what Judaism is about. This is a first-rate book on what Jews are about. And of the distance between the two.” –The Jerusalem Post
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Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum is devoted to his congregation of mostly middle- and upper-middle-class Conservative Jews—yet their tepid observance frustrates and saddens him. The rabbi’s sometimes troubled, sometimes joyful leadership of Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester, Massachusetts, is the focus of this timely, eloquent, and often moving book. Written by award-winning author Paul Wilkes, And They Shall Be My People presents a complex and human portrait of American Judaism at a critical juncture in time.
For Rabbi Rosenbaum, it is a time of new perils and persistent hope. American Judaism, he believes, has in some sense become a victim of its own considerable success. Now, with the struggle for economic security well behind most American Jews and with anti-Semitism on the wane, the health of the Jewish community is threatened by the easy seductiveness of the secular, mainstream American culture surrounding it. Daily, the rabbi confronts this new, complex challenge to his people’s spirituality: How to be a people, a Jewish community, and still be Americans?
As a man of tradition, the rabbi believes deeply that conforming to the expectations of the secular world—higher attendance figures, a larger budget—is the wrong way to strengthen his congregation. He knows he must somehow show his congregation the riches and fulfillment of an observant Jewish life. But even the efforts he makes—taking special care to keep his weekly Shabbat sermons both contemporary and spiritually compelling and bringing a sincere sensitivity to the recurring life-cycle events, the Brit Milah, bar mitzvahs, marriages, and funerals, which mark and shape all Jewish lives—may not be enough to overcome the temptations his congregation confronts daily.
And They Shall Be My People chronicles the rabbi’s dream of taking twenty-five of his congregants on a pilgrimage to Israel. There, he hopes, his fellow Jews will be inspired by the palpable history of the Jewish experience, the observant life made accessible by a society living more closely to its religious roots. The book helps us understand why Rabbi Rosenbaum so firmly believes that this experience will inspire his companions, and in turn the larger congregation back home, to renewed faith. And it allow us to see the rabbi in his daily life and work, to glimpse the myriad ways his faith and his role in the congregation shape his own life, his family relationships, and his congregation—providing joy in life, solace in death, a sense of spiritual identity, guidance in matters moral and practical.
“There are lots of books on what Judaism is about. This is a first-rate book on what Jews are about. And of the distance between the two.” –The Jerusalem Post
“To call [And They Shall Be My People] “a revealing portait” is an understatement. It is a mirror, exposing both the grandeur and ugliness of organized Jewish life.” –The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“A useful contribution to the ethnography of modern religious life.” –The New York Times Book Review
“A powerful, haunting story for a society easily seduced by new emphases and values.” –Philadelphia Inquirer
“This is a strong and honest book, and finishing it one can’t help but admire Rosenbaum, his long-suffering wife and a patient and observant author for embarking on this journey.” –New York Newsday
To Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum, the twenty-three men and women arrayed before him in the library of Congregation Beth Israel on an unseasonably balmy November night in Worcester, Massachusetts, represented nothing less than the seeds of new life. That they were somewhat older seeds, and fewer in number than he had hoped–over sixty people had originally expressed interest–seemed not to disturb him. These twenty-three were the hope for a season of growth to Rabbi Rosenbaum, the promise of renewed commitment to the observant Jewish life within his synagogue–in essence, the beginning of a new era at Beth Israel. He stood proudly before them, a generous and confident smile on his face, as if they were a mighty legion awaiting his call to service.
Bookshelves containing an impressively wide range of volumes, from current Jewish fiction to ancient Talmudic commentary, Jewish history, philosophy, and thought–none of which, the rabbi would have to admit, circulated particularly well–surrounded the small group seated on gray metal folding chairs.
From the walls, portraits of two of Beth Israel’s former presidents–one of them looking most impressive, a Bible firmly clutched in his right hand–gazed out impassively over the gathering. No former rabbis were in evidence. In American synagogues, such memories are typically carried in the heart, not committed to canvas.
The rabbi warmly introduced Channy Greenberg, who had just arrived from New York to represent Kenes Tours, her travel agency, which was ready to organize a trip to Israel the following summer for members of Beth Israel. The trip, which was to be “Personally Escorted by Rabbi and Mrs. Jay Rosenbaum,” looked, in the impressive color brochure she handed out, much closer to reality than it actually was.
Just a few minutes into her presentation, Mrs. Greenberg’s enthusiasm seemed to overwhelm her, necessitating a pause after her description of day six of the two-week trip. “I have made sixty-five, seventy trips to Israel,” she confided, sotto voce, nodding her head knowingly, “but each one is new, each one different. You will have two weeks of incredible experiences and” –she hesitated in her reverie–”a lifetime of memories.”
In her twenty-minute presentation, Mrs. Greenberg, an attractive, effervescent woman with dark hair, dark eyes, and wearing a fashionable dark wool suit, beckoned the Beth Israel congregants to travel with her along the road that Joshua trod as he entered the Holy Land–up the steep incline to the fortress at Masada, where Jewish zealots committed suicide rather than yield to the Romans; to Caesarea and the Western Wall; to mount the Golan Heights, so crucial to Israel’s security; to wait on the tarmac to greet a planeload of newly arrived Russian emigr’s; to visit a kibbutz, to spend a night in a Bedouin encampment, to hear a briefing at a military base on the Jordanian border; to walk the quiet halls of Yad Vashem and honor those who died in the Holocaust; and to explore the Museum of the Diaspora, where they could embark on a computer-assisted journey into their own Jewish pasts. “And not one Shabbos, but two’–her voice was now flavored by both remembrance and reverence–”two will be spent in Jerusalem.
“As for practical things: once you take your luggage off the trolley at Ben-Gurion Airport, you will not have to touch your bags again. We take care of everything, so you can enjoy yourself. Transportation, guide, everything. And, spiritually, ah!” she concluded. “There you are truly blessed.” Looking to her left, she slowly, deferentially, extended a hand toward Rabbi Rosenbaum. “Your own rabbi will be with you. With him, you will have the spiritual dimension for your trip of a lifetime.”
Rabbi Rosenbaum’s response at the end of Mrs. Greenberg’s presentation was immediate. “I’m ready. Let’s go tomorrow,” he said, a boyish grin spreading across his face as if, indeed, a lifelong wish had been granted. But, judging by the tone and number of the questions that followed, his congregants–a few single women in their forties, three couples of child-rearing age, the rest couples in their sixties or seventies–were considerably more cautious. Their spiritual guide might be ready to lead them into the Promised Land, but they were not yet sure they wanted to follow. Exactly how observant would they be expected to be on Shabbos? What clothes should they bring? What plans were there for activities to occupy the young children? What about weather, credit cards, bottled water, food, their digestive tracts, currency exchange, shopping time, free days, and–some shuffling of feet here–what about that night in a Bedouin encampment? A Bedouin encampment?
Moses may have led the Jews out of bondage in Egypt to wander forty years in the desert, but the Jews of Beth Israel in Worcester, who would be transported via El Al jet and chartered bus to stay in luxury hotels, wanted their spiritual guide to know, up front, that they would not take kindly to spending a single night on the sand. To their credit, there were no questions about the dangers they might encounter in a land that lives daily in various stages of military alert. But, equally, to the rabbi’s quiet consternation, neither was there a single question or comment about the religious dimension of the trip.
A beeper sounded near the back of the room. Dr. Howard Fixler, an internist, pulled it from his belt, looked at the encoded message, and put it back in place. Channy Greenberg was now fielding questions about whether or not men would need to bring a jacket; could–and should–Israel bonds be cashed in to pay for expenses. One woman asked in a serious voice if Cheerios were sold in Israel, as if this were the manna needed to sustain her family in the desert wilderness. Howie Fixler’s beeper sounded again. Patting his wife, Jody, on the knee, he shrugged with a certain resignation to the rabbi and left the room to return the call.
Howie and Jody Fixler were exactly the kind of people the rabbi wanted on the trip, and he was happy they had come. They were young, marginally observant Jews who he sensed were ready for a deeper commitment. But Howie was one of the few who could boast hair beneath his kippah–or at least hair not yet totally gray. It wasn’t that the others in the room–couples like Murray and Freda Rosenberg, and widows like Marion Blumberg and Rose Goldstein–were not good and loyal members of Beth Israel; on the contrary, they were solid, observant congregants. But they represented the dying breed of American Jew, second-generation sons and daughters of the immigrants who had come to Worcester and other American cities around the turn of the century. They were born Jews, had married Jews, and would die Jews. It was Howie Fixler’s generation that represented the future of American Judaism.
When he had outlined this trip to Mrs. Greenberg, the rabbi had taken great pains to include the needs of both groups. He often felt the older and the younger members of his synagogue had little to do with one another and did not share common goals. He was determined that traveling together on this trip would begin to bridge that gap. But even before this inaugural meeting, he had heard that some older couples were adamant that they would not be along if they were expected to travel through Israel on a bus loaded with children. He was also aware that another proposed trip was competing with his own. Dr. Charles Mills, another of his stalwart members–and like Howie Fixler, an internist–was organizing a trip exclusively for couples with young children. Even before the rabbi had his chance to present his hopes for the congregational trip, a certain factionalism had already set in.
Before Rabbi Rosenbaum came to Beth Israel, a few congregational trips had been attempted; the response had always been poor. Notwithstanding the current state of the economy and reports from other rabbis that similar efforts had only recently failed (including a proposed trip by the Worcester Reform synagogue, Temple Emanuel), Rabbi Rosenbaum felt he could wait no longer. This was the year to go to Israel.
He had been at Beth Israel for six years, had started a slew of new programs, had brought in excellent speakers, and had begun to reverse the demographic trend, attracting younger families into what had been an aging, somewhat moribund synagogue. He was loved and respected by virtually all of his people; he was well known in Worcester as a community leader, devoted to social action, and was considered an exemplary Jew. By any rabbinical measurement, he was also a success: more homes–perhaps a fifth of the congregation–kept a kosher kitchen; forty people–by today’s standards an incredible number of men (and a few women)–were qualified Torah readers; six havurot groups met regularly for study and prayer. Sabbath attendance was up; his sermons were spiritually insightful, contemporary, and often provocative. At life-cycle services for birth, bar mitzvah, wedding, or funeral, Jay Rosenbaum could be counted upon to make the moment memorable.
But it was not enough. The time had come to move beyond the small victories and to ask for more, much more, not only from his people, but for himself. He had readied his people; it was now time to make the quantum leap of faith. The longer he waited, the more difficult it would become, both for him to ask and for his people to respond. His successes, he feared, had bred a certain complacency; the people of Beth Israel were, for the most part, content with their level of Judaic commitment. But Rabbi Rosenbaum was far from satisfied.
He wanted his people to live more intensely Jewish lives, to break out of the cycle of spotty attendance, of High Holiday, wedding, or bar mitzvah frenzy, of the casual observance of halakha, Jewish law. He wanted to take them to the birthplace of Judaism, to have them walk where the prophets walked, to see the places told of in the Torah, to witness living Judaism as the state of Israel struggled to be a light unto the nations. In essence, he wanted to make the ancient come alive for his people of 1990s America. He wanted them to hear the voice of God, calling out to them to keep His commandments, the mitzvot.
And then, after the trip, the rabbi hoped for them to return dedicated to the ideal of creating a Jewishly observant community–not in the Hasidic shtetl of Crown Heights or in an Orthodox enclave like Forest Hills–but in the midst of a midsize, postindustrial Massachusetts city. It would be a community that honored the Sabbath not only by coming together for services, but in being shomer Shabbat–forgoing travel, work, and modern conveniences on this holy day each week. In doing so, the rabbi hoped, the Jews of Beth Israel would find mutual support as they lived within a society where Saturday more typically meant Little League, lawn mowing, and trips to beach, ski slope, or shopping mall.
In recent years, Rabbi Rosenbaum had felt increasingly compelled toward this gamble by both communal dreams and selfish motives. In his own effort to live an observant Jewish life in Worcester, he found that he was often alone. His children did not have playmates from shomer Shabbat families. He and his wife, Janine, did not have a circle of friends who had made Shabbos the precursor of heaven it was supposed to be; too often it was little more than a burden to be endured.
And there was also the issue of his next contract with Beth Israel. Jay Rosenbaum had two years remaining on his current three-year contract. If he signed another contract, it would signal his intention to spend the rest of his rabbinic life in Worcester. Would he stay at Beth Israel and live in the midst of tepid observance, or go on to pursue a more intensely Jewish life elsewhere, in a place where modern Orthodox and Conservative Jews had grouped together around their synagogues–for instance in Newton or Brookline, nearer Boston? Or near his mother, in Forest Hills, New York?
Ironically, Jay Rosenbaum had discovered that being the rabbi of a Conservative congregation was exactly what was standing in the way of a fully religious life for himself and his family.
The subtle nudges of assimilation that rabbis like Jay Rosenbaum constantly battle–both in their congregations and in their personal lives–are proving a far more insidious threat to the identity and faith of American Jews than the gauntlet of blows the Jewish people have weathered throughout history. In one of our first conversations, the rabbi showed me a recent study by the Council of Jewish Federations that reported that, since 1985, 52 percent of American Jews have married non-Jews. Of the children born to intermarried couples, the study reported, over 90 percent in turn married outside the faith. Synagogue attendance is down across the country; so is the number of people who donate to Jewish philanthropies. American Jewry–just forty years ago a homogeneous monolith, within which intermarriage was virtually unheard of–finds itself fragmented, diluted, and faced with an enigmatic, precarious future. Once some 4 percent of the American population, Jews now represent a mere 2.5 percent; low birth rates and a high percentage of Jews who never marry, coupled with the breakup of traditional Jewish neighborhoods and the relentless undertow of a predominantly Christian nation, have conspired to make the maintenance of a Jewish identity ever more difficult.
The fate of the Jewish people has frequently been in question throughout their four-thousand-year history; the findings of social scientists, sifted and processed by computer, are only the latest troubling omen. Yet while statistics may present what many regard as a problem, to Rabbi Rosenbaum they also make clear the solution. Even though half of all American Jews have intermarried, the percentage of intermarriage drops in inverse proportion to the level of Jewish education and observance. The rabbi’s solution is straightforward: if an American born a Jew is to remain a Jew, he or she must live as a Jew, within America. Cultural Judaism, ethnic Jewish identity, High Holiday attendance, and Yiddishkeit memories are simply not enough to sustain them.
“Are you sure, Rabbi? Rabbi!”
The question was insistent and a bit testy, as a group of older congregants cornered the rabbi at a table at the rear of the library where an urn of hot water and packets of instant coffee and tea bags provided the humble refreshment for the evening’s meeting. Jay Rosenbaum smiled, as is his fashion when either complimented or attacked. “Of course we can have two itineraries. The kids will be taken care of by a counselor for activities they wouldn’t get much out of. It’s done all the time. Those are minor details that can be easily worked out. Okay? I’ll be in touch on the phone and by mail. Let’s get the hundred-and-fifty-dollar deposits in so we can start planning. I can’t wait.”
The room emptied quickly, and a few minutes later Rabbi Rosenbaum found himself looking out over rows of misaligned chairs. Collecting his file folder, which contained the list of those present at the meeting, and the pile of extra brochures, he turned out the light and locked the library door. Striding purposefully across the foyer that leads to the sanctuary, he then proceeded down a dimly lit hall to his office. He went around to his side of the desk, set down the file folder, and, like a mindful shopkeeper, scanned the stacks of papers and books to see if there was anything needing his attention before he closed up for the night. He then looked up at me, standing quietly on the other side of the desk. At first he appeared vaguely uncomfortable; it was not usual, I assumed, for someone to be in his office, except on official business. Then I saw another look come over his face.
It was a somewhat mannered look, as if a consequence of conscious effort. It seemed strange, and, as I did not yet know the rabbi well, it puzzled me. He appeared sure, almost cocky. I took this to be the look of a seasoned professional who could not afford to allow the vagaries of the moment to register on his face. But when he spoke, his words did not reflect the confidence he seemed to demonstrate.
“Spiritual life? We were talking about that, weren’t we?” he began, answering a question I actually hadn’t asked, but one that he must often consider, both in thought and in conversation. ‘sure, everybody’s seeking that, an inner life, some way to make sense out of their lives. And here it is, right in front of them. It’s called Judaism. Is it difficult? Yes, but worth it. Judaism is a beautiful, total, wonderful, fulfilling way to live a life.” He took his coat out of the closet and, hesitating with but one arm in a sleeve, continued. ‘my job? My job is to convince people of that, that their lives can be transformed in Judaism. That by cutting things out, they actually get more from their lives. A tough one to sell to modern-day Americans, believe me, tough. But going to Israel together will be a big step. Where else can you go and be a Jew all the time? Where you can be comfortable being a Jew? Where the plumber is Jewish and bus driver is Jewish and the lady at the icecream stand is Jewish? Israel. In America, the culture is always going against you. Israel. We just have to go. I know they’ll come home different people. I just know it.”
As the rabbi was leaving Beth Israel, Channy Greenberg was arriving at the Worcester Marriott, her lodging for the night. She was pleased with the rabbi’s enthusiasm for the presentation she had made, but she was equally famished. An observant Orthodox Jew, she keeps a kosher kitchen and eats only kosher food when she is away from home. Rabbi Rosenbaum had picked her up at the airport, and one of the congregants had brought her to the Marriott. Neither had thought to ask her if she had eaten, or was hungry. Situated as she was at a hotel with a nonkosher restaurant, and in a downtown area she didn’t know, Channy Greenberg bought another bag of potato chips from a vending machine and went to bed.